A Pirate’s Life for Me
Blackbeard’s Crew is a nonprofit dedicated to historical preservation, a relatively dry description that could apply to many organizations. However, most other nonprofits dedicated to historical preservation probably don’t spend their board meetings discussing how their black powder supply is holding up, the construction of their new, lightweight pillory, or conclude their meetings with ceremonial rum shots. And most nonprofits dedicated to historical preservation aren’t run by people who, for one reason or another, decided to become pirates.
“A lot of times we’re out all day long in the heat in period garb, and sometimes they don’t hydrate as much as they should,” says Constable Heartless as he gestures toward his crew while the meeting dissolves into laughter, calls for more rum, and a suggestion that they should train their rats to start stealing wallets. “This is the result.”
Constable Heartless, a.k.a. Randy Gnatowsky, is the captain of Blackbeard’s Crew, or, as he prefers to put it, “Acting captain, in the absence of our dearly departed Edward Teach.” He and his fellow pirates are a living history group, committed to teaching people about the life of pirates in the late 17th and early 18th centuries at events such as the upcoming Blackbeard’s Pirate Jamboree on Ocracoke Island and the annual Blackbeard’s Festival in Hampton, Virginia. They set up an encampment where they demonstrate skills such as seamanship, weapons and tactics, shipboard medicine and surgery, cooking, rope making, and navigation. They also answer questions, in character, for curious onlookers.
“Our job is to entertain and amaze, and by doing so, bring visitors back to the Golden Age of Piracy to see what it was like.” says Constable Heartless. “Our purpose is really to preserve the skills and talents of the 18th century mariners, because that’s being lost. Even the Coast Guard and the Navy don’t teach anyone how to navigate anymore. It’s all GPS. No celestial navigation. No dead reckoning. And we try to dispel the myths and rumors created by Hollywood. For instance, do you know the first time someone ever walked the plank on a pirate ship? It was in 1935, during the first Errol Flynn movie, Captain Blood.”
The Constable likes to make a distinction between what they do and reenactments. “Reenactors generally go out and play war,” he says. “We actually bring history to life.”
Of course, that’s not to say that playing war is above them. During large events such as Ocracoke’s Pirate Jamboree they stage full-scale naval battles to reenact Blackbeard’s last stand near Springer’s Point and to raid a merchant vessel using real ships that, while not quite period, are “pretty close” to the ones that Blackbeard and the British Royal Navy used.
Additionally, the crew has quite the collection of swords, small arms, and cannons, and it’s clear that their weapons demonstrations are a favorite of festival-goers – and the pirates themselves.
“Blowing stuff up is our specialty,” says Nancy Whiskey, a.k.a. Stephanie Fitzsimmons. For Nancy, a big part of her decision to become a pirate was getting to play with weapons.
“I had a 10-year history with cannons, and I really missed being behind the gun line,” she explains. “This gave me the opportunity to get on a gun line again and blow things up, which I have an affinity for doing. And I love edged weapons. I can play with swords and blow things up, and I can be just as happy as anybody else.”
The weapons were also a draw for former stunt man Gibbet Bones, a.k.a. Russ Mosher. “There’s a certain elegance and art to wielding edged weapons, and this is my outlet for that,” says Gibbet.
For others, it was a simple sense of community that brought them to piracy.
“My brother (the ship’s surgeon, Mr. Cutter) was pirating for many years, and he invited me to join in. It took maybe a day before I said, ‘Yup. That’s home. That’s family,’” recalls Mistress Hope, the crew’s “camp mom,” who’s also known as Amanda Gundry. “When we’re out there doing our gigs, it almost feels more like home than every day does.”
Kids who attend Blackbeard’s Crew’s events also have the option of enrolling in Scallywag School, and one of Constable Heartless’ favorite parts of being a pirate is the expression of wonder and amazement on the faces of their younger attendees. “I do it for the kids,” he says. “We go to events with thousands of children, and for me, every single one of them is like my grandbabies.
“We teach them wholesome things like how to talk like a pirate, how to wield a cutlass, how to fire a flintlock – things that children really should know,” he adds. And although he notes that most of his actual grandbabies aren’t terribly impressed with his pirating skills, he’s quite proud of his 14-year-old grandson, Slice, (a.k.a. Tyler Bielenberg) who has become an expert artilleryman.
Slice is one of a few kids that are part of the crew. But the distinction of being the youngest member of Blackbeard’s Crew belongs to two-year-old Barnacle Bean, a.k.a. Eilidh Strum. Though Barnacle Bean didn’t choose a life as a pirate, she does seem to enjoy it, and she performs essential functions with the crew such as directing the memorial march to Springer’s Point during Ocracoke’s Pirate Jamboree, her tiny finger pointing the way ahead as she rides in a basket on her dad’s back. In fact, Ocracoke is where Barnacle Bean took her first steps, and two years before that, it was the place where her mother learned that Barnacle Bean was on the way.
The rest of the crew has a variety of reasons for becoming pirates, including a desire for camaraderie, the excitement, and for at least one crewmember, a “midlife crisis.” The life of a pirate is clearly not for everyone, but those who choose it wouldn’t have it any other way.
“You ask why do we do it? This, right here,” says Constable Heartless. “This is a spectacular group of individuals. The ones that are sitting here tonight, I’d put them up against any other group of people anywhere.” ♦Come see if the pirate life is for you at Blackbeard’s Pirate Jamboree on Ocracoke Island from October 28-30. Activities will include a living history encampment, naval battle reenactments, Scallywag School, a memorial march to Springer’s Point, and plenty of other swashbuckling, rum-fueled shenanigans.
Katrina Mae Leuzinger lives with her husband and their fearsome toddler. When she’s not writing, she prepares elaborate meals, cheats at video games, and plays the guitar (badly).